Nick Bollinger reviews an album charting a personal and geographic journey by Nadia Reid; a sonically adventurous set from Las Vegas-based New Zealander Renee-Louise Carafice; and a collaboration between twangy Texan trio Khruangbin and neo-soul singer Leon Bridges.
Out Of My Province, by Nadia Reid
With international travel brought to a sudden stop and touring musicians livelihoods under threat, it is poignant that Nadia Reid’s new album uses travel and the itinerant life of the artist as its fundamental theme. Could this be the last of the great road albums?
Out Of My Province is its very literal title. Recording took her away from the Lyttelton Harbour studios of Ben Edwards where her two previous albums were made, to Richmond, Virginia and the collective of musicians and producers that congregates around the Spacebomb label. And the new environment - musically as well as geographically - can be felt right from the record’s opening bars. Her voice is crisp and upfront, where it belongs, but as well as the guitar of her long-time offsider Sam Taylor and the sparse but punchy rhythm section of Americans Cameron Ralston and Brian Wolfe, there are subtle and splashes of strings and horns.
If the whole idea of ‘the road album' is American in origin - think classics of the genre like Joni Mitchell’s Hejira and Jackson Browne’s Running On Empty - then it’s somehow fitting that Reid went to America to make hers.
Road imagery runs through these songs, throwing up titles like ‘Heart To Ride’ and ‘The Other Side Of The Wheel’. And the songs themselves set us in motion, while Nadia ticks off locations on a map of the world: Riddiford and Stansted, Norway and Spain, as well as places she has yet to go.
Reid sings these songs like a series of confidences. Even when the music is pumping, as in a track like ‘O Canada’, it’s as though she’s leaning over the music to share a secret rather than rocking out with the band. But her phrasing also carries a sense of mischief and fun; the way she lets the syllables tumble out of a word like ‘sen-ti-men-tality’, or how her voice rises unexpectedly to form a question on the word ‘Canada?’
There’s a literal dimension to all the road stuff, and yet there’s another journey going on here too, the journey through life. For many of these songs, Reid is weighing up the meaning of love and commitment. There are people having children, or thinking about their grandparents. It may be typical late-twenties quarter-life crisis stuff, but Nadia touches it so lightly and poetically that it’s as though one is hearing such thoughts voiced for the first time.
Nadia Reid’s albums have been classy right from her debut six years ago, but Out Of My Province is a step forward. It’s more streamlined and confident. Where the earlier records invited you into an intimate lounge, this one puts the keys in the ignition and takes you for a ride. ‘There’s a line between the future and where I am heading’, she sings gnomically in a song called ‘The Future’, and once again life becomes a highway, and this measured, masterful and slightly mysterious singer-songwriter is behind the wheel.
Goners by Renee-Louise Carafice
One of this country’s most singular musical exports is Renee-Louise Carafice. Originally from Auckland, for most of the past two decades she’s been based in the United States where she has worked up a small but extraordinary catalogue of albums. Her most recent came out just at the end of last year, and for those who have been following her it will seem like a natural progression.
I was struck by the sonics before I could really hear the songs. It opens with a beat, a bobbling synth bass, synthetic washes of keyboard and two voices, electronically processed and echoing each other like a pair of singing cybernauts. But as is usually the case with Carafice, there’s a solid tune and meaningful lyric inside the sonic shell.
Carafice has a wild and unpredictable imagination, and yet her work is rooted in autobiography. Each of her records has reflected a specific period in her life, and a particular set of experiences, and this one is no exception. It stems from a time when this animal lover, who titled one of her earlier records I Will Raise A Bird Army and literally lives in a house full of dogs and birds in Las Vegas, Nevada, found that a number of her non-human friends were reaching the end of their lives. Loss is not an uncommon subject among singer-songwriters, but Carafice goes further than that. Her experiences of loss have led her to some deep contemplation about what happens after death. And while I wouldn’t say these songs supply any concrete answers, they trace their journey through grief, anger and unanswered questions to some kind of resolution in the final tracks.
But as James Joyce wisely said, ‘In the particular is contained the universal’. And the emotions Carafice plumbs in these songs could speak for anyone’s loss and grief, and that doesn’t have to be grief for a household pet. Like Laurie Anderson’s film Heart Of A Dog - the project this album sometimes reminded of, at least conceptually - Joyce’s observation is borne out in these songs.
So why, when the subject is such a fundamentally human one - essentially, how a person deals with the loss of a loved one - does Renee-Louise, for most of the album, process her voice electronically so its more human characteristics disappear? That’s a paradox and Carafice no doubt has her own explanation. But in a strange way it’s part of what universalises these songs. Without the usual signifiers - those characteristic cracks and flaws that identify a particular voice - the sentiments belong, even more, to whoever wishes to inhabit them. It even occurred to me that, in places, the processing may have made Carafice sound more like one of the animals she’s eulogising.
But I suspect there are pure musical reasons for her choices here too. From her first album, 2004’s extraordinary Renee-Louise Carafice Tells You To Fight!, she has moved steadily away from a traditional singer-songwriter accompaniment of guitars (usually acoustic) and natural voice tones, to a place far less explored, at least by singer-songwriters; and you can hear the freedom that comes with this uncharted territory.
Carafice’s guitar isn’t entirely absent from the album, though we’re a few songs in before it makes an appearance. But if you’re feeling disoriented in the electronic landscape, the beautiful ‘Rocket’, right in the middle of the album, might function as a kind of lighthouse to guide you to the other side.
Texas Sun, by Khruangbin and Leon Bridges
Texan trio Khruangbin have made three albums of mostly instrumentals, an intriguing blend of eastern fantasia and Texas twang that makes me picture a surf band in a desert.
A couple of years ago they did a U.S. tour with fellow Texan, retro-soul singer Leon Bridges. And now they have put that partnership on disc.
It opens with the kind of kinetic funk groove that Khruangbin’s albums are full of, though their vocals - when they sing at all - tend to be confined to echo-y ‘oo’s and ‘ah’s. With Bridges on board, though, they have got a real singer and the groove is extended into a full-blown soul song; a bit like a mid-70s Marvin Gaye.
Then there’s the slower kind of mood this Texan band with the Thai title seem to create so effortlessly, and again Bridges responds in a personal way.
It’s on ‘Midnight’ that it becomes clear that the smoky-voiced Bridges isn’t just laying generic soul-isms over Khruangbin’s instrumentals. What he’s singing here is a romantic vignette from his Texas teens. It’s nostalgic and sexy and, being Texas, there’s a car involved. But if Bridges’ lyrics invoke a specific time and place, so, in a way, do the musical settings. More than ever on this mini-album, it becomes apparent that Khruangbin have a micro-history of Texas music at their fingertips, and never more so than in the title track.
For the title track Bridges is back with his girl and out on the Texas highways again, while Khruangbin are joined by the pedal steel guitar of guest player Will Van Horn, and then there’s absolutely no doubt which State we’re in. It’s the closest to country these artists have ever come, though it’s still their own hybrid. But you’ll hear traces of Spanish music, blues and other distinctly Texan flavours blended throughout the record. Texas Sun is the title and, as I say, it’s only a four-song EP, and at first I thought it was pretty slight. But it’s grown on me, and my favourite track of all is ‘Conversion'; a languorous ballad that highlights Mark Speer’s chiming guitar, features a heartfelt confessional vocal from Bridges, and ultimately segues into an old gospel song.
Texas Sun might seem like a modest offering, but it makes a valuable addition to the catalogues of both acts, and somewhere down the highway I hope to hear more.